The Greatest Virtue on Earth

November 30, 2005 | 33 comments
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Last general conference, our prophet spoke the following sentence: ” I think X may be the greatest virtue on earth, and certainly the most needed.”

What is X? Perhaps you remember it from the talk. If not, and if you wish to humor me for a minute with some participatory blogging, then try this for an exercise: Think over the sentence for a minute, and write down your three or four best possible answers for X. Think you’ve got it? Click through for further discussion.

I posed the question to my class on Sunday, and received a variety of responses. Honesty, suggested one person. Love, said another. Charity, said a third. A half dozen more suggestions were made — none of them the particular virtue that President Hinckley chose to highlight.

X is forgiveness. And of forgiveness, President Hickley said:

I wish today to speak of forgiveness. I think it may be the greatest virtue on earth, and certainly the most needed. There is so much of meanness and abuse, of intolerance and hatred. There is so great a need for repentance and forgiveness. It is the great principle emphasized in all of scripture, both ancient and modern.

Forgiveness is the great virtue; forgiveness is what will take us past hatred and meanness, what will take us past intolerance and abuse. Given the number of other highly important virtues that President Hinckley could have chosen to so highlight — love, charity, faith, virtue, and so on — it is enlightening that he reserved his esteem for forgiveness. If forgiveness is the greatest virtue on earth, it is indeed a great thing.

One particular area we discussed in class was forgiveness in marriage. Certain unique difficulties may make forgiveness in marriage difficult. Married people are, to use an economics term (probably out of context), “repeat players.” They engage in the same offense-and-forgiveness interactions again and again — giving offense, taking offense, demanding apology, giving apology. Given the repeat transactions, it is easy for battle lines to become hardened. In those cases, today’s argument isn’t simply about what one says today; it dredges up the ghosts of a thousand arguments past. This makes forgiveness all the more difficult — and all the more important. (Sometimes I wonder if that’s what happened to Satan. He was offered a settlement, a truce, a way back to the fold. But he couldn’t get over some perceived slight that he felt he had suffered because of something Nephi had said centuries ago. And eventually, the settlement talks came to a halt and the war resumed.)

The blogging relationship is much less serious than marriage, but brings with it many of the same repeat player concerns. Over time, it becomes easy to assume the worst about our fellow bloggers or commenters. The medium itself lends to this — for the 99% of us who don’t write like Rosalynde, it is hard to convey a smile or a laugh in a sentence. Also, many of us have now been interacting online, on a near-daily basis, for a year or two years, and we feel the effects of repeat player transactions. There are benefits to this long-term interaction — we feel that we really know Nate Oman and Kristine Haglund Harris and Jim Faulconer after all this time. But there are also drawbacks — we may feel that we already know all that some person has to say about a topic, for instance. And we may see every comment as a continuation of battles long past.

So how do we avoid the worst tendencies of repeat player transactions? I don’t know the answer myself; I’m as prone to these problems as anyone else, I think. But when I’m thinking more lucidly, I think that a good first step is found in a motto I’ve seen bandied about on the internet, that goes along these lines: “Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by misunderstanding.”

At least for me, that’s the first step in forgiveness. And forgiveness is, after all, the greatest virtue on earth.

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33 Responses to The Greatest Virtue on Earth

  1. FullnessOfTimes.com on November 30, 2005 at 6:55 pm

    As for forgiveness in marriage, my spouse and I do pretty well except for when it comes to things like remodeling and driving in downtown traffic. Some tactics we have applies are:

    Assume the best:
    Always assume that the other person did not intend to say something hurtful.

    Respond immediately:
    Immediately state that what the other person said hurt you and give them a chance to explain or appologize. Don’t let it fester.

    Forgive in advance:
    If you know you are going into a situation where arguing is going to be an issue (i.e. remodeling for us), forgive in advance, so both know that it is the situation which is the hard thing, not the person.

    These have worked well for us.

  2. anon on November 30, 2005 at 7:40 pm

    “I wish today to speak of forgiveness. I think it may be the greatest virtue on earth…”

    Nice words, but it sounds like he’s not completely sure.

  3. john donne on November 30, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    anon: “I think” can mean lots of things, unsurety being but one of the many meanings. There is no good reason to assume he must be saying he is not sure. Scholars who have studied the evolutiong of the English language over the course of the twentieth century have noted the rise of the first person singular, particularly in political oratory. “I think” can be a way of diffusing contrarian argument. It is often used as a matter of habit.

  4. Ryan on November 30, 2005 at 8:04 pm

    “Nice words, but it sounds like he’s not completely sure.”

    Sounds like you’re putting the emphaaaahsis on the wrong sylaaaaahble. I read it not as the valley girl might say it:

    “Umm I think that like 2+2 is umm… like 4… or something?”

    But as a declaration of opinion:

    “I think you are incredible”

  5. manaen on November 30, 2005 at 9:19 pm

    “So how do we avoid the worst tendencies of repeat player transactions?�
    One way that helps is to stay grounded in your own acceptance by God and his love for you. With that base, you’re free to concentrate on helping others because, although you readily welcome it, you don’t need their approbation for your own well-being. Helping the other person then reduces the “worst tendencies of repeat player transactions� because you’re less-likely to repeat your own triggers of those unwanted actions by others, you’re not bringing the tension of your expectations of disappointing actions into the exchange because your base keeps that from threatening you, and you’re not focused upon their past patterns so much as upon their future improvements.
    .
    One of my personal-favorite discussions about forgiveness, aside from Pres. Hinckley’s talk that you cited, was by Dr. Elaine Walton during BYU’s “Embracing Hopeâ€? seminar on abuse. I heartily recommend her entire presentation (audio also available on KBYU’s site). She gives a powerful 16-step approach to healing with an abuser, discusses myths about forgiveness, and explains steps in forgiving.
    .
    Some too-brief citations are:
    “Forgiveness shouldn’t be confused with excusing the offense. Forgiveness frees the victim from the effects of the offense. […] Forgiveness is something you do for yourself – not for someone else. […] ”
    .
    “Forgiveness is the process through which the injured person gains peace, freedom, self-acceptance, and release from self-pity; through forgiveness wounds are healed. It is a privilege to forgive, because forgiveness really is for the benefit of the victim! It may be easier to forgive if the offender repents, but victims should not be dependent on the repentance of the offender in order to experience the freedom that comes with forgiveness.”
    .
    “So, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness implies a change of heart. When we say, ‘I forgive you,’ we are saying ‘I have stopped being angry with you.’ Forgiveness also conveys a change in the victim’s expectations. For example, he or she no longer seeks recriminations or tries to get even. Genuine forgiveness is a process, not a product. It takes time and is hard work. It is a voluntary act which gives meaning to the wound, disengages the offended from the offender, and frees the injured person from the ills of bitterness and resentment (Hope, 1987).”
    .
    “When one has been deeply wounded, there is no way to genuinely forgive without experiencing a great deal of personal growth.”
    .
    “I want to conclude with my own testimony regarding the personal growth and spiritual cleansing that can come through forgiveness. There was a time in my life when I was so badly injured that I didn’t see any possibility for real recovery. My heart was broken. But, in my state of humiliation—or humility, depending on your point of view—being completely stripped of pride became freeing; it allowed me to make spiritual progress. My broken heart became a “broken heart and a contrite spirit�—not a crushed heart, but a heart broken open to receive help, guidance, and wisdom. I was open to learn, to grow, and to change; pride was no longer a barrier. During that time when my heart was so tender, I could not sit through a sacrament meeting without weeping. People would see my tears and feel sorry for me, but those tears were more than tears of grief. I was overwhelmed with many feelings—including feelings of gratitude, joy, and love. The Lord was aware of my plight, and His grace was at work in my heart. As my own spirit was cleansed, my need for anger disappeared, and it was not difficult to forgive.
    .
    “When I was skimming along the surface of the straight and narrow path in my youth, I had lofty goals, and I knew success; but I didn’t really know Christ until I was confronted with injury and loss. I would like to share a scripture, one which has come to have great meaning for me. It is found in Romans 8:28. ‘. . . all things work together for good to them that love God.’ My heartbreaking losses, instead of undermining my testimony, have deepened it, and I believe I have become a better disciple.�
    .
    Some other comments I like about forgiveness are:
    .
    “The weak never can forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.� – Mahatma Ghandi
    .
    “If you do not forgive, you give away your future — tomorrow is held hostage to yesterday.â€? – Stephen R. Covey
    .
    “Bitterness is the poison someone drinks intentionally with the hope that someone else will die.� – Dr. Laura Schlesinger
    .
    “Dennis Rasmussen in his wonderful little book, The Lord’s Question, taught me this: “To hallow my life, [God] taught me to endure sorrow rather than cause it, to restrain anger rather than heed it, to bear injustice rather than inflict it. ‘Resist not evil,’ [Jesus] said in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5:39.) Evil multiplies by the response it seeks to provoke, and when I return evil for evil, I engender corruption myself. The chain of evil is broken for good when a pure and loving heart absorbs a hurt and forbears to hurt in return. The forgiveness of Christ bears no grudge. The love of Christ allows no offense to endure. The compassion of Christ embraces all things and draws them toward himself. Deep within every child of God the light of Christ resides, guiding, comforting, purifying the heart that turns to him.”
    .
    “What a privilege we have to forgive those who offend us or even sin against us. I love Carol Lynn Pearson’s poem “The Forgiving”:
    .
    “Forgive?
    Will I forgive,
    You cry.
    But
    What is the gift,
    The favor?
    You would lift
    Me from
    My poor place
    To stand beside
    The Savior.
    You would have
    Me see with
    His eyes,
    Smile,
    And with Him
    Reach out to
    Salve
    A sorrowing heart—
    For one small
    Moment
    To share in
    Christ’s great art.
    .
    “Will I forgive,
    You cry.
    Oh,
    May I—
    May I?
    .
    “Sometimes I say out loud to myself, “Oh, may I, may I?” What an attitude about forgiveness. God tells us that He will forgive whom He will forgive. (D&C 64:10.) I think He meant that He is ready to forgive all of us when we repent; however, He reminds us that we must “forgive all men.” I would add, if we want to be like Him. He is willing to forgive all of us. A dear friend taught me that we learn to forgive by changing ourselves. Joseph Smith instructed, “The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.” I think that’s a great barometer to test ourselves to see how close we are getting to God. The closer we are to our Heavenly Father, the more we have these feelings of compassion and desire to forgive and forget.â€? — Ann N. Madsen, As Women of Faith: Talks Selected from the BYU Women’s Conferences [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989], 160.

  6. annegb on November 30, 2005 at 9:36 pm

    Kaimi, this is one of the best posts I’ve seen. Thanks. I’m going to print this and try to remember it when I come back.

    I thought it would be patience or hard work.

  7. LisaB on November 30, 2005 at 10:01 pm

    I’m confused. I thought it was charity (of which forgiveness is part, still…)

  8. Daylan on November 30, 2005 at 10:09 pm

    At what *point* are we required to (or should we) forgive?

    A baseball accidently crashed through your window:

    1) Do you forgive the act instantly (without waiting to learn who did it)?
    2) Do you forgive after the (in)sincere “I’m sorry”?
    3) Do you forgive after the window has been paid for (after restitution has been performed)?

    An arsonist burnt down your home (and you have no insurance):
    Same three questions. Does accident vs. intentional crime make a difference?

    Should forgiveness cancel the ability or desire to obtain restitution (possibly through civil suit)?

    Should we *ALWAYS* follow Christ’s example of ‘forgive them, they’re ignorant”?

    BTW why did Christ ask the Father to forgive them? Why not forgive them Himself?

  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on November 30, 2005 at 10:15 pm

    One particular area we discussed in class was forgiveness in marriage. which also provides some of the best payoffs for forgiveness.

  10. Weston C on November 30, 2005 at 11:40 pm

    ““I thinkâ€? can mean lots of things, unsurety being but one of the many meanings. There is no good reason to assume he must be saying he is not sure.”

    I think it may be that the entire phrasing was simply used for rhetorical emphasis, rather than placement of forgiveness in a formal heirarchy of virtues.

  11. Susan M on December 1, 2005 at 12:03 am

    I remember thinking when I heard his talk that it was really a talk on repentance, but rather than heap guilt on people, instead he spoke from the perspective of how great it feels to receive forgiveness. Really awesome.

  12. Erika on December 1, 2005 at 12:19 am

    Forgiveness… I loved this talk.
    Long time lurker finally leaves a comment.

    PS I love this site.

  13. Dave on December 1, 2005 at 2:57 am

    Nice post, Kaimi — and nice that Pres. Hinckley highlighted forgiveness as a missing Mormon virtue. I think The Miracle of Forgiveness is partly to blame for the problem: it seemed to teach by example that the proper reaction to sin and sinners is revulsion, condemnation, and judgment. After I reread it a couple of years ago, my response was “Yes, in the LDS Church, nothing short of a miracle can elicit forgiveness.”

  14. Ben Huff on December 1, 2005 at 3:39 am

    Maybe he said “I think” because he knows it’s not really so, since charity/pure love is, but to explain that would be cumbersome. Thus, “I think”, and he can get on with his point about how important forgiveness is.
    : )

  15. jinnmabe on December 1, 2005 at 4:16 am

    “nice that Pres. Hinckley highlighted forgiveness as a missing Mormon virtue”

    I didn’t catch that part of his talk. He said it was needed. Does that mean that Mormons are missing it? Or that everyone could use more? Then again, I didn’t have the same reaction to Miracle of Forgiveness that you did either, so….

    I liked that President Hinckley told that story about the frozen turkey, but I find in my own life that most of my forgiving is for little, tiny, insignificant stuff that really bugs me nonetheless. (Probably this is due to a lack of overpasses where I live). That’s why I liked Kaimi’s point about marriage. One point I have learned in marriage: it doesn’t count as forgiveness if part of you is condemning your wife for not being more forgiving of you. Reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s exchange about the man who realizes “By Jove! I’m being humble” and then feels pride about it.

  16. Russell Arben Fox on December 1, 2005 at 8:55 am

    “Married people are, to use an economics term (probably out of context), “repeat players.â€? They engage in the same offense-and-forgiveness interactions again and again — giving offense, taking offense, demanding apology, giving apology. Given the repeat transactions, it is easy for battle lines to become hardened.”

    This is a great insight, Kaimi. It would be difficult (and probably wrong) to describe it in detail in a post, but something that fits very well along with what you describe has probably been Melissa’s and my greatest trial as a married couple. Maybe “trial” isn’t the right word; I’m not sure what is. In any case, for years, our relationship was clearly hampered by the fact that our sinning against one another, and our apologizing for those sins, was rote–we both knew that both of us would continue the behavior which offended our partner, and we both knew we were both sorry for that fact, and we both know we would say we were sorry, and we both knew we would continue the behavior…etc., etc. It took a lot of time and a lot of honesty to slowly, imperceptibly but surely, get to the point where we were truly offering and accepting forgiveness for our own and each others’ faults, and moving forward from that point. And of course, there’s probably still quite a bit more time and honesty that will be required of us yet.

  17. Lamonte on December 1, 2005 at 9:50 am

    I’m sure these are just my personal thoughts and they probably only apply to me and my particular mentality. But when President Hinckley states that “forgiveness is the greatest virtue on earth” and then he follows that with “and certainly the most needed” I totally agree with him. For those who have rightly suggested that “love/charity” should be considered the greatest virtue I would also not disagree but I would also offer this thought. At least for me, it is far easier to love and have charity, at least it is easier for me to have an outward appearance of having love and charity, than it is to forgive. In other words, it gives me great pleasure to serve others and I enjoy the opportunities to do so. But when someone has done wrong to me, it has proven to be an incredibly difficult thing for me to forgive and to forget that wrong and to get back to feeling the same way about that person that I did before the wrong was committed. And ultimately, it seems that the greatest act of love and charity would be to learn to love that person despite the wrong they have committed against me. In other words – to forgive them.

  18. Mark on December 1, 2005 at 11:30 am

    Forgiveness Flour

    When I went to the door, at the whisper of knocking,
    I saw Simeon Ganter’s daughter, Kathleen standing
    There, in her shawl and her shame, sent to ask
    “Forgiveness Flour” for her bread. “Forgiveness Flour,”
    We call it in our corner. If one has erred, one
    Is sent to ask for flour of his neighbors. If they loan it
    To him, that means he can stay, but if they refuse, he had
    Best take himself off. I looked at Kathleen..
    What a jewel of a daughter, though not much like her
    Father, more’s the pity. “I’ll give you flour,” I
    Said, and went to measure it. Measuring was the rub.
    If I gave too much, neighbors would think I made sin
    Easy, but if I gave too little, they would label me
    “Close.” While I stood measuring, Joel, my husband
    Came in from the mill, a great bag of flour on his
    Shoulder, and seeing her there, shrinking in the
    Doorway, he tossed the bag at her feet. “Here, take
    All of it.” And so she had flour for many loaves,
    While I stood measuring.
    Marguerite Stewart

  19. b bell on December 1, 2005 at 11:43 am

    “Married people are, to use an economics term (probably out of context), “repeat players.� They engage in the same offense-and-forgiveness interactions again and again — giving offense, taking offense, demanding apology, giving apology. Given the repeat transactions, it is easy for battle lines to become hardened.�

    This is probably one of thre best summaries of the realities of a marriage I have ever heard. When one partner can actually overcome one of the problems that repeats over and over again its a time for joy. I am convinced that the atonement can help us overcome these types of repeat offenses. Sometimes they can be minor. But minor issues if not corrected over time can be damaging to a marriage.

    All I can say is WOW. Great comment.

  20. Russell Arben Fox on December 1, 2005 at 12:49 pm

    “This is probably one of thre best summaries of the realities of a marriage I have ever heard.”

    Agreed, b bell. Really Kaimi, you should turn this post (and in particular this observation about marriage and “repeat players”) into something more substantial and send it to the Ensign.

  21. Tatiana on December 1, 2005 at 12:50 pm

    Mark, I loved that poem. Thank you for posting it.

  22. b bell on December 1, 2005 at 1:18 pm

    Kaimi,

    Really. You could really develop it into something that could really help people. I have found that its impossible for me to overcome the issues that really bother my wife at once. But it is possible thru repentance and Jesus for me to focus and change individual issues one at a time. My wife and I have figured that I have about “10 issues”. In the last 10 years I seem to have solved 3 of them. Maybe when I am 60 I will be issue free!!!! The fact that I seem to have solved three glaring personality/sin issues gives my wife hope for the future and a firm belief that our marriage is on solid ground.

    Marriages are saddled with repeat issue problems. Learning how to deal with them and overcome them is a valuable marriage coping tool. Hint: Repentance

  23. Eric Russell on December 1, 2005 at 2:40 pm

    Daylan,

    It’s #1.

    “Does accident vs. intentional crime make a difference?� No.

    “Should forgiveness cancel the ability or desire to obtain restitution (possibly through civil suit)?� Probably, but not necessarily. Remember that forgiveness is a condition of the heart, not an action. It is theoretically possible to sue soft-heartedly.

    Dave,

    LOL. If you had actually read the latter part of the book, you would have discovered that forgiving others is the book’s primary point.

  24. manaen on December 1, 2005 at 3:28 pm

    23
    ” ‘“Does accident vs. intentional crime make a difference?’ No.”

    Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t accident/intent the difference between murder/manslaughter or sin/mistake or why unaccountable children aren’t held responsible for what would be sins by accountable adults?

  25. Adam Greenwood on December 1, 2005 at 3:48 pm

    I agree with Manaen. I think its worse to not forgive someone who accidentally wronged you than it is to not forgive someone who intentionally wronged you.

  26. greenfrog on December 1, 2005 at 5:10 pm

    In my non-standard view of atonement, both repentance and forgiveness are necessary elements of it. Without either one, the two (or more) who have become separated (by, definitionally, sin) cannot become “one.” But as extending forgiveness to an offender even in advance of repentance tends to inspire repentance (or at least to eliminate the “it’s hopeless, s/he’ll never forgive me, why try?” barrier to repentance), I think I agree with Pres. Hinckley on its pre-eminence.

    The verb “to forgive” is, in my view, the action by an individual that is most akin to the verb “to atone.”

    If we are commanded to be like Christ, absorbing the harm from and forgiving others of their offenses should be our highest aspiration.

  27. manaen on December 1, 2005 at 5:33 pm

    25
    Adam, thanks for supplying what I did miss in my #24. I couldn’t find the original positng for ‘“Does accident vs. intentional crime make a difference?’ No.â€?, so I responded with no context. If the context was whether accident/intent matters about whether we forgive, I would say ideally, “No, we are to forgive all, God forgives who he will.” but that it is more understandable that someone would fall short of the ideal for not forgiving intentional offense.

    26,
    greenfrog, amen! I’ve been pondering lately the ascension regarding other people of of serve –> love –> be at-one. Christ’s intercessory prayer asks that we be one amongst ourselves as well as one with God.

    As in Dennis Rasmussen’s comment cited in #5, “The chain of evil is broken for good when a pure and loving heart absorbs a hurt and forbears to hurt in return.”

    greenfrog ~ greenforgive?

  28. Elisabeth on December 1, 2005 at 6:54 pm

    How do we avoid the frustration of the same people continually driving us crazy? By sticking labels on them and putting them into their corresponding boxes, so we can close up the box and we don’t have to look inside anymore.

    So, while I agree that forgiveness is a cardinal virtue, I think humility is just as important in our interactions with others (real or imaginary). Orson Scott Card wrote an interesting book about our inability to judge one another fairly called “Speaker for the Deadâ€?. The Speakers research the dead person’s life and then give a speech that speaks for the dead, describing the dead person’s life from the dead person’s perspective. I’ve thought that it would be helpful if you could hire a Speaker for the Living – this would certainly help clear things up.

  29. greenfrog on December 2, 2005 at 12:24 am

    #8: Does accident vs. intentional crime make a difference?

    Typically, yes.

    Should it? I do not believe so, but I’m not certain.

    Intent is an important element in human justice systems, because we intend justice systems to incent particular behaviors, excuse others.

    But the very quality of forgiveness depends upon the very lack of “justification” for the forgiveness — the lack of any “rationale” for forgiveness. If the action is justified, then forgiveness is not needed. It is only if the action is unjustified that forgiveness is relevant.

    Perhaps it is this quality of forgiveness that makes it, definitionally, outside of the concept of justice. It is not the opposite of justice. That would be injustice. Forgiveness is an act that deems justice and justification irrelevant.

    In that sort of context, scienter of any quantum — negligence, recklessness, or fully intentional — has no bearing on the reason for forgiveness, which has nothing whatsoever to do with justification.

  30. manaen on December 2, 2005 at 3:25 am

    29
    “Perhaps it is this quality of forgiveness that makes it, definitionally, outside of the concept of justice. It is not the opposite of justice. That would be injustice. Forgiveness is an act that deems justice and justification irrelevant.”

    I agree — forgiveness is an act of *grace*.

    So it is with God’s forgiveness: grace, not justice.

  31. manaen on December 2, 2005 at 3:26 am

    29
    “Perhaps it is this quality of forgiveness that makes it, definitionally, outside of the concept of justice. It is not the opposite of justice. That would be injustice. Forgiveness is an act that deems justice and justification irrelevant.”

    I agree — forgiveness is an act of *grace*.

    So it is with God’s forgiveness: grace, not justice.

  32. manaen on December 2, 2005 at 3:30 am

    29
    “Perhaps it is this quality of forgiveness that makes it, definitionally, outside of the concept of justice. It is not the opposite of justice. That would be injustice. Forgiveness is an act that deems justice and justification irrelevant.”

    I agree — forgiveness is an act of grace.

    So it is with God’s forgiveness: grace, not justice.

  33. Mister Snitch! on December 6, 2005 at 10:59 pm

    I thought the capacity to love was the greatest virtue.

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